The Pocomoke

author: Kris Wolpert
date: Oct. 1999

I was talking to a friend recently and he told me about a great trip that he and his son had on the Pocomoke River this past July. Their trip through a Delmarva Peninsula, cypress swamp provided stories about turtles dropping out of the trees, snapping turtles as big as manhole covers (not dropping out of trees), unusual flowers, a Great Blue they got very close to, and the only negative thing -- flies that extracted a pound of flesh with each bite. As Sam told me about their great trip, I just had to laugh out loud and the following tale explains why.

At home in the Harrisburg area -- before the trip

Fearless Leader: "Hey, I think we should do a little side trip from our stay on Assateague and paddle a river that runs through a cypress swamp; it's virgin water for me."

"That sounds interesting, but according to Gertler's Maryland book, the section you're talking about is above tidal water and is not runable during dry summers."

Fearless Leader: "Not to worry, I checked it out and they received as much if not more rain than we did during the recent weather event."

"Okay, I'll keep this in mind when deciding what boats to take on the trip."

Sunday, October 11, 1998, Maryland State Park campground at Assateague

"With tomorrow being a travel day, maybe we should rally the troops and paddle that river today?" This is no small feat, with many of the participants being confirmed members of the Crack-of-Noon club, but Fearless Leader agrees and with a little hustle 9 of us stand ready at the put-in. It's 3:00 PM.

"I thought Gertler's book said that this water was supposed to be moving; it looks awful still to me!"

Fearless Leader: "No problem, look at that vehicle with the Maryland tags and the wide roof racks parked here. Their companion vehicle is parked at the takeout. If it's good enough for the locals, it's fine by me and besides, we're only doing 5 miles. We can easily do 2 miles an hour and we'll have plenty of margin before it gets dark."


Somewhere on the first mile or mile and a half below Whilton Crossing Road

The water is deep, still, and unobstructed. We are paddling two K2's, three K1's, and an OC2, for a total of six boats.

"Those clowns sure are enjoying the speed of those touring boats; do you think we'll see them again before we get to the take-out?"

Fellow slow boater: "Who knows?"

First strainers

"What the heck is this? I hope this is not a sign of things to come!"

After a mile or two of continuous strainers

Boat dragging distances exceed paddling distances. The terrain is fairly rough -- remember this is a swamp -- but beyond the knee-deep mud at shore line it's relatively dry. "What do you think about turning around and heading back to the put-in?"

Fearless Leader: "This congestion cannot continue the whole way, it has to let up soon, and those other folks are ahead of us -- they didn't turn back."

"Ahh, okay? How do you think the less experienced people in our group are going to hold up to the continued physical and increasing emotional demands of this little adventure?"

Nearby paddler with many years of experience rolls his eyes -- nothing is said. Fearless Leader is starting to receive some verbal abuse and Ed Gertler's ears are probably ringing -- all in good fun. We banter about how many weeks or months the other vehicles have been parked at the put-in and take-out. Someone refers to the group in front of us as the "Donner Party"; it catches on.

Further into it

We continue to drag boats through the woods and, where we can, pull occupied boats across the smaller logs; it saves time. The downed trees do not present the classic strainer hazards because the water is dead still. "What's your guess at the distance we've gone?"

Fearless Leader, who likes to estimate speed and then calculate distance, answers: "Well, 3 mile per hour for the first half hour uses up a mile and a half, and, since the strainer onslaught, we've been going less than one mile an hour. What time is it?"

"Going on 6:00." There isn't a lot of daylight left; saying this out loud isn't necessary.

Fearless Leader: "I guess we're about three and a half miles into it."

"We're cutting it pretty close." More eye rolling takes place. While some of us are quietly having these brief, serious discussions on the side, the general banter is still loaded with humor, but the tone is changing.

"I'm starting to get real thirsty for those margaritas," this statement is issued in response to the mounting pressure and the because there are margarita ingredients, a blender, and a 12vDC to 120vAC converter back at the campground.

"Hey, Intrepid Whitewater Boater, if we don't get back soon, your car battery will be drained dead by the residual campsite occupants and that blender!" Now, he's starting to worry.

One of our novice explorers speaks up "I'm really looking forward to a big seafood dinner in Ocean City tonight. That's keeping me going." She's hanging in there.

Catching up

The Intrepid Whitewater Boater, who has never paddled flatwater before, is starting to appreciate that flatwater can provide adventure. He is one of those who took off like a bat-out-of-heck at the beginning of the trip. His own boat is less than half the length of the touring boat he is now paddling and the only way he previously achieved the touring boat's speed was by plunging his little boat off of water falls. He also learned that, with this boat's stiff keel, gradual upturned bow, and slick plastic, he could propel himself over logs that were 8 inches above the water line, if he had room to get a run at them. He turned out to be the fastest at getting through this mess.

We are catching glimpses of the "Donner Party" and Intrepid Whitewater Boater just returned from a downstream reconnaissance mission, exclaiming: "You won't believe this. I caught up to the group in front of us and they are a family -- two adults, three kids, with the oldest kid being 11 years of age, and the youngest just turned 6. They are all paddling solo; one canoe and the rest are kayaks!"

"Well, I guess that explains why we caught up to them."

Pushing on -- now we are 11 boats

Our gang pitches in and we try our best to make progress while helping the "Donner Party" (the Family). Double Tubby (the Topo Duo K2) with my junior bow partner are keeping me busy, and I cannot help others much beyond trying to establish a path and staying out of the way. For some members of the Family, particularly Matthew -- the youngest, fear and exhaustion are starting to outwardly show, but it was obvious that the adults are in good physical shape or they would not have gotten this far. It is getting darker fast. The Family produces a flashlight; they are better prepared than we are on this account, but I think that Fearless Leader has a lighter and could make fire.

They did what? Now we are 6 boats again, but not the original 6.

We figure that the take-out is not too faraway and we are in get-there mode. We can get lights from the take-out vehicle and come back for the others. It's dark, but we got a few breaks between the impenetrable strainers and make some progress. The group is getting strung out and Andrew, the 11 year old member of the Family, is right behind us when Intrepid Whitewater Boater catches up and says: "The Family, Fearless Leader, and his partner are walking out. They left their boats lay."

After inquiring about the dryness and warmth of the two youngest members of the Family, my thoughts turned to our loss of the ability to make fire. We push on.

Without exaggerating, I can not see my hand in front of my face and I know that a portage is now out of the question. My junior partner has youth and better eyes; she is leading the way through the obstacles while I look up for breaks in the canopy -- trying to get an indication of the stream's direction. Even though the stream is less than 20 yards wide, there is the danger of doing a U-turn, while groping in the dark. As a precaution, we pass word back to not bunch up. When we find a passage through the logs, we wait there and call the next boat to that spot and they in turn do the same for the following boat.

At one of these tight spot meetings, Andrew speaks up: "When we get to the end, will you guys wait there with me and not leave me alone?"

Wow, he's still optimistic about getting out!

His request never was a question in my mind but I understand his question and answer: "Yes!"

Can't move

We're stuck and I can't move our boat.

Someone asks: "Which way now?"

"I don't know. In fact, I haven't gotten out of my boat and I don't even know where the stream is anymore." Later, I was told by a group member that this statement had sunk their emotional boat.

This little 5 mile jaunt was just starting to get interesting, when in the distance we could see light and hear the walk-out group calling. Son-of-a-gun, they made it out and are coming back for us already. That was fast -- we must be close.

Twilight Zone

Someone finds an opening and we move toward the walk-out group, but they don't move toward us. We get to their location and there lay their boats!

"What the hell is going on here?" Turns out that they did the classic walk in a circle, but how did we get here? We, unknowingly, did a U-turn on a 20 yard wide stream? Both groups had traveled in circles and met at the same spot?

Yep, we're in The Twilight Zone -- Rod Serling, please step out.

At first sighting, the walk-out group thought that we were coming back for them.

My junior partner finally sheds a few tears: "You guys are lost!"

Hunker-down for the night

They had already started a fire. The younger members of the Family have dry clothes and seem to be doing much better. It was time for a meeting of the minds and a frank discussion about our options ensued.

Dave, the father of the crew, led off: "We have a cellphone and, when we started walking, we alerted 911 to our situation. Do we want an all-out search and rescue? They've started to mobilize a helicopter." This instantly made some of our group squirm.

We continued the discussion: "We are all okay. There is plenty firewood around. This spot is relatively dry. The temperature is tolerable and hopefully, with that cloud cover, the temperature will not drop much further. There is little wind. Luckily, there are no bugs. We can not move 14 people with one flashlight. Let's stay put until morning and not risk the hazards of moving in the dark. And we don't want search and rescue people putting themselves at risk either."

The cell phone battery is almost dead and a single call is crafted to call-off search and rescue, and to notify friends of the Family and the crew back at Margaritaville. This call terminated the helicopter mobilization and explained the loud horn we were hearing -- a DNR officer at the take-out.

For shelter, we prop two canoes on their sides with the gunwales facing the fire. Fourteen people are using PFD's, float bags, spray skirts, ice chests, canoes, cypress tree knees, and whatever clothing they have or borrow for support and protection. The evening meal consists of a few potato chips and peanuts; the beer is long gone, but there is enough to drink. Fearless Leader doesn't seem to be complaining about the "white man fire" (read big) for a change. Humor returns to the group in abundance and I occasionally check for negative reaction from the senior Family members, when the more colorful stories start to fly. They had mentioned the morning's sermon, which was about survival, as being the reason they brought a cellphone and flashlight along. At times, many are asleep but in general it is a moderately uncomfortable, sleepless night. People were contorted in amazing positions -- on the ground, in canoes, on ice chests, and even in ice chests. Temperatures dip to the mid to low 50's. ZERO COMPLAINTS!

There's the bridge

It took about 15 minutes to paddle out the next morning. We visually recognized shapes that we had groped in the dark and we discover the tiny island that we had circled to produce the U-turn. "If we had made it out last night, we would have complained vociferously about the trip; instead, it turned into a mini, story-generating misadventure. Wasn't that fun?"

Sam (remember him from the beginning of this story) went on to explain how he had run into a local outfitter at his intended take-out in Snowhill, who warned him not to start at Whinton Crossing. Sam started at Porters Crossing -- our take-out.


From the Harrisburg area: Kris, Sarah, Guni, Doug, Pat, Ruenkaew, Jeff, Joyce, and Eric. Our new friends from Salisbury, MD: David, Caryn, Andrew, Rebekah, and Matthew

Kris Wolpert

Copyright © 1999 Kris Wolpert. All rights reserved.